May 13, 2009

College group finds Gila monster on field trip

Only 26 other times has a Gila monster been seen in California since 1861

A group from Cuesta on May 2 made only the 27th siting of a gila monster in California since 1861 during a visit to the Providence Mountains in the East Mojave National Preserve. (Ron Ruppert/Blake Andrews)

David Sneed Tribune

A group of Cuesta College faculty and students made an unusual find during a trip earlier this month to the Mojave National Preserve — a Gila monster, a large and colorful desert lizard.

The group of 21 was traveling May 2 through the Providence Mountains of eastern San Bernardino County to a field station where they were staying when the lizard was spotted alongside an old mining road. Gila monsters are endemic to Arizona and Nevada, but are seldom seen in California.

Prior to the group’s sighting, there had been only 26 individual sightings in California since 1861, and nine of those may be the same animal on different days, said Ron Ruppert, chairman of the college’s biological sciences division.

“This is a rare animal in California,” he said.

Gila monsters are the largest lizard species in the United States and have bright coloring and a venomous bite. The group climbed out of its vans to watch the lizard and photograph it, student Blake Andrews said.

“The contrast between the vibrant orange and the deep black bumps that were scattered in splotches across his back, popped in the sun,” Andrews wrote afterward.

Finding the big lizard turned out to be a highlight of the natural history field trip to the desert. Nursing student Andrea Reddick said that snakes and lizards weren’t something she was particularly interested in, but she described seeing the Gila monster as one of the best experiences she has had.

“Experiencing the sighting of the Gila monster and understanding the rarity of such an occurrence has made me feel ecstatic to have witnessed it and be part of herpetology history,” she wrote.

The group watched the lizard for about 20 minutes before getting in its vans and driving away.

“Its tail was plump, and the lizard looked healthy,” Ruppert recalled. “Estimated length was 14 to 16 inches total length, but no measurements were taken.”